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Aurora Puerto Rican’s efforts helped pave the way for all Latino workers

Parents from 'Ballet Folklorico' open nights festivities  with dance during AurorHistorical Society LatNight Friday September 7 2012 AurorIL.

Parents from "Ballet Folklorico" open the nights festivities with a dance during the Aurora Historical Society Latin Night on Friday, September 7, 2012 in Aurora IL. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 11, 2012 6:04AM

AURORA — Emilio Berrios’ untold story — one of strife and fight — came to life Friday night.

“He paved the road for all Latinos in the workplace,” said Mirna Lopez-Freitag, president of the Aurora Puerto Rican Cultural Council. “His story hasn’t been told.”

At a celebration of Aurora’s Hispanic roots — including Mexican, Puerto Rican and Tejano communities — Aurora honored 92-year-old Emilio Berrios, a Puerto Rican Civil Rights pioneer and labor organizer, at the Aurora Historical Society Friday.

“I’m so happy. I never thought they would do this for me,” Berrios said. “I now know that they appreciate what I did.”

After a storm wiped out his family’s tobacco crop in Puerto Rico, Berrios decided to come to the United States. Berrios arrived in Chicago in June 1951 via cargo plane from Puerto Rico. He was bumped from an earlier plane because it was too full. That plane later crash landed, and only half of the passengers survived.

“It was like fate, (I wasn’t on) that plane,” Berrios said.

With just $3 in his pocket, he spent 50 cents on a taxi fare from the train station in Aurora to where he’d be living. The investment stirred the winds of change in Aurora and throughout the country.

Berrios started work on July 4, 1951 at one of the only factories that would hire Latinos — Papelera — Aurora Paperboard, earning $1.25 per hour.

“Back in 1951, although Puerto Ricans were considered residents (of the U.S.), there was still a lot of discriminiaton,” Lopez-Freitag said.

There were 13 other Puerto Ricans living in the city when Berrios arrived. Berrios remembered walking down the street in Aurora, talking to a Puerto Rican friend. A cop stopped them and told them to separate.

“He told me — ‘You shut up and get inside or go to jail,’” Berrios said. “I told him — ‘Have you read the Constitution?’”

In the 1950s, Latinos were working at factories in bad conditions for little pay, said John Jaros, executive director of the Historical Society, and Berrios, too, endured workplace discrimination and abuse.

Berrios was fired for visiting his family in Puerto Rico. While working at a greenhouse earning $1 per hour, he tripped and tore a green pepper plant. His boss picked Berrios up off the floor by his pants, and again, he was fired.

In 1957, Berrios returned to work at Aurora Paperboard, earning $2 per hour. After a year of “working like slaves,” he organized fellow Latino workers to contact the Department of Labor.

It would be the beginning of Berrios’ long fight for Latino workplace rights. Berrios circulated a petition among the workers, contract negotiations began and workers protested, eventually temporarily shutting the plant down. During the process Berrios was fired, but later reinstated with help from the United Mine Workers union.

Berrios would go on to be elected president of the labor union in 1957 by the District 50 United Mine Workers of America, and never lost an election during those 12 years, he said.

“I was trying to find a job for the community — all of the Spanish people,” Berrios said. “Companies would promise to hire, then they wouldn’t.”

In 1964, Berrios attended the United Mine Workers second convention in Washington, D.C. Of about 3,000 attendees, Berrios was the only Latino.

“I don’t know how I did it. I didn’t speak English. (But) God helped me everywhere I go,” he said.

Berrios successfully worked alongside other minority leaders to negotiate with Caterpillar and Western Electric. As a result, the companies agreed to hire a limited number of Latinos.

In 1970, Berrios left Aurora Paperboard for Nabisco. He retired there in 1987. Over time, companies would offer Berrios foreman positions, but he always refused.

“I was there to help my people — being able to help the community in general, not just Puerto Ricans,” Berrios said. If he was in management, he couldn’t observe conditions from a worker’s perspective, he said.

After presenting Berrios with a plaque, a band surprised him by playing a song that he composed about the community and his homeland, titled “Decima Original en honor a Puerto Rico.” People asked Berrios to autograph copies of his song lyrics after the performance.

Several of Berrios’ 12 children attended Friday’s ceremony. Auroran Chris Vargas, Berrios’ son, said he is extremely proud of his father.

“He unbelievable. He went through a lot,” Vargas said. “I had no idea he did all of this, but I learned.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Berrios said it seemed like half of Aurora’s Hispanic population was Puerto Rican. Today, Puerto Ricans make up 2 percent of Aurora’s population, Lopez-Freitag said.

At Friday’s reception, guests snacked on authentic Latino foods and enjoyed a live dance performance from members of Aurora’s Ballet Folklorico Quetzalcoatl.

The exhibit honoring early Latino pioneers and recalling Aurora’s Hispanic culture will be on view at the Historical Society through Sept. 29. It is sponsored by the Aurora Puerto Rican Cultural Council, the Northern Illinois Tejano Cultural Society and the Aurora Hispanic Heritage Advisory Board, and kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins Sept. 15.

Part of the Historical Society’s tribute to the city’s 175th birthday, the series of ethnic salutes — titled Flavors of Aurora: Stirred, Not Shaken — already has honored the Luxembourger, Romanian and Greek communities. The community will honor German descendants Oct. 5 and recent world refugees and immigrants on Nov. 2.

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